If PR is the preserve of the elite, how can we speak to a public we don’t reflect?

26th March 2024

Citypress has recently partnered with the Social Mobility Foundation to help tackle the lack of social diversity in the PR industry. Our Chief Executive Martin Currie explains why creating opportunities for lower socio-economic groups is so important, and how small, incremental changes can make a big difference, from recruitment policy to colleague progression to workplace culture.

I once had the pleasure of interviewing Lord John Bird MBE – social entrepreneur and co-founder of The Big Issue – as a guest speaker at one of our agency all-hands.

It was via Zoom in the depths of lockdown when we were desperately trying to motivate a team fatigued by months of remote working. It was also a helpful reminder that, however much you were missing your friends or family or local pub, there’s always someone much worse off.

John’s passion for eradicating the causes of poverty jumped through our laptops and slapped us around the face.

One brilliantly simple point he made was that the greater the lack of opportunity in the most disadvantaged groups of a society, the greater the problems that society will face – poverty, crime rates, ill-health and so on. In other words, poverty of opportunity sits at the heart of our biggest social challenges.

Like most forms of inequality, exclusion based on social background is an old as the hills. And whilst it’s not more important than any other form of inequality, it is important, not least because it intersects with so many.

Some of the most traditionally elitist professions like banking, accountancy and law have made steady progress to create more and better opportunities for lower socio-economic groups.

Less so in PR land.

CIPR research suggests 25% of practitioners went to private school – compared to 7% of the general population – and twice as many have parents with a degree.

So why is the comms sector lagging behind?

I don’t know this for a fact, but I doubt a career in public relations will be an obvious choice for your average 16-year-old on free school meals. Nor is their school likely to enlighten them.

And even if they did, there are countless barriers for them to pursue it. You really need to live in or near a big city. You need to dress ‘appropriately’ and know what that means. It helps if you know someone. And have ‘the right accent’. Or at least ‘the right kind of regional accent’. And a ‘good degree’. From the ‘right kind of university’.

It’s not just about access, either. There will be just as many challenges progressing – what social historian Duncan Exley calls the ‘protocols of progress’. The ‘fit’, the ‘polish’, the network, the social capital. Incidentally, estimates put the class pay gap between state and privately educated practitioners at £12,000.

Caitlin Plunkett-Reilly’s Fish out of water – funded by the CIPR – gives an excellent depiction of these everyday challenges, from the profound to the prosaic.

And yet, the experiences of candidates from lower socio-economic groups are invaluable to both agency and clients. How else can they authentically engage customers with similar backgrounds?

Structural problems can feel insurmountable. But incremental changes to recruitment policy, colleague progression and workplace culture, multiplied by hundreds of employers, would make a big and quick difference.

That’s where organisations like The Social Mobility Foundation come in. They have the expertise to tell organisations what works to ensure working-class employees get in, get on and feel like they belong, through their Employer Index. And they’re able to collect data and drive system-wide change with their campaigns, like publishing the Class Pay Gap.

But change needs to happen from within.

Assessing whether the role needs a university degree rather than assuming it does. Avoiding class-coded phrases in job ads (are ‘excellent public speaking skills’ really a requirement for entry level roles?). Ending unpaid internships and ensuring they’re accessible to candidates from lower socio-economic groups, not just the ubiquitous ‘friend of a friend’. Adding a cost of living subsidy to internships. Making sure people aren’t expected to fund expenses from their own cashflow before reclaiming. Adding a meeting etiquette module to first-jobber inductions.

Privilege will always exist in some form. But it’s very different to potential. We need to recognise and resist a lazy and latent bias towards it and create the social diversity every high-performing team needs.

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